Xing Xi pracctices ar the Zen Kung Fu Center in Beijing. Source: Reuters.


An Eternal Debate


Some of the most persistent, and for students of Martial Arts Studies most significant, issues revolve around the choices individuals are forced to make.  I was introduced to Wing Chun in what I would characterize as a fairly open environment.  My Sifu (Jon Nielson) was a student of Ip Ching, but he openly talked about and shared techniques from the various other lineages he had been associated with over the years.  His Salt Lake City school held “open sessions” on Friday nights and Saturday mornings which were  exactly what the name implied.  The school was left open, and in the care of one of the senior students.  It was free to be used by anyone who wanted to come in and train.  But that offer was not restricted to the paying students of the school.  Over the years we had multiple Jeet Kune Do, Jujitsu, Kung Fu and Taijiquan students come in, learn a little chi sao, practice grappling or otherwise engage in an (always friendly) exchange of technique.  I quickly learned that my community was defined by those whose interests and backgrounds were similar enough that we could profitably train together, rather than being restricted to only individuals who claimed a specific lineage or art.

On a purely empirical level I think my martial art training benefited from being exposed to a fair number of people who were not trained in our system.  Nor was this experience unique.  After moving to New York state I started an ethnography project with a group of kickboxers.  Once again, I saw something similar.  The regional community was not defined by a single school or style.  Rather, it was a network of individuals, all of whom lived within driving distance of one another and who could (when time and schedules permitted) attend “open mat night” at each other’s gyms. These were chances for students from different areas to come together and engage in some friendly sparring, or maybe work on a more specific set of skills with new people.

While fairly common in some areas, practices like these are far from universal in the Asian martial arts.  I have found that when visiting new schools one of the first things that I need to understand is the degree to which this institution sees itself as being open to, or set apart from, the larger martial arts community.  This tends to impact everything from etiquette to training strategies.  Indeed, it is one of the factors that defines the texture of life within a martial arts school.

A few examples may be in order.  Doug Farrer, in various places, has drawn a sharp contrast between the typically open “park culture” that he observed while studying with the Jingwu group in Singapore, and the closed nature of some of the Choy Li Fut schools found within the city’s red light district.  Where as one group happily displayed their training in public and encouraged him to study with various teachers, the other adopted both the rituals and architectural spaces more often associated with the region’s long history of secret societies.  New disciples were even expected to pledge to “wear a single shirt”, meaning to study no other style of fighting art.  As opposed to the relatively open and modernist trappings of the Jingwu association, these groups typically displayed a more robust understanding of the school as a lineage society, complete with a memorial wall for sacrifices to the ancestors who had gone before.

It would be futile to try and surgically disentangle the sociologically closed nature of this second group from the system of cultural scripts and signs that it was embedded in.  The very definition of categories as broad as “closed” and “open” must, be culturally mediated and carefully qualified.  But it would also be a mistake to see this contrast between closed and open communities as exclusively an artifact of Chinese history.

I have recently had a chance to research the early spread, and cultural adaptation, of Wing Chun in Germany during the 1970s.  Again, both modes of social organization have been on full display.  The older and better established EWTO tends to be relatively closed in its social orientation.  This can be seen in a number of places, from its distinctive uniforms to in-house publications.  Their goal is to provide students with everything that they need to become proficient in self-defense and to find a new and engaging community.  This stands in sharp contrast to the more recent wave of smaller, more independent, Wing Chun schools in Germany that might openly embrace cross-training in Krav Maga, or the Filipino martial arts, and do not attempt to go create such a complete, immersive, cultural experience for their students. 

Nor are these choices restricted to the historically grounded Asian martial arts.  The same debate between openness and closure seems to be raging in the lightsaber combat community, the current focus of my ethnographic work.  To the uninitiated the conversation might not be as immediately evident.  Certainly no one is expected to burn incense and kowtow as they make public vows to (among other things) not study other styles.  Yet these same issues seem to underlay increasingly difficult debates that have emerged on a number of seemingly unrelated topics.

At the moment the biggest debate in the lightsaber community has to do with the question of safety gear (and, to a lesser extent, safety regulations within tournaments) rather than specific techniques, training methods, or anything having to do with Star Wars itself.  Among the major organized groups there are essentially three competing standards for safety gear.  Perhaps the most common, seen in groups like the TPLA (Terra Prime Light Armory) and the SSL (Sport Saber League) mandates a fencing mask and lacrosse/HEMA gloves as the required basic equipment, with some individuals adding al a carte elbow, knee or chest protectors if they are going into a tournament and expect more vigorous matches.  Training or lighter sparring within a school typically sees only the use of a fencing mask and gloves.

This approach is not, however, universally accepted.  One of the largest lightsaber groups, LudoSport, almost totally dispenses with safety gear.  Light gloves are worn, but in general their rules are structured in such a way that strikes to the face are avoided and sparring is not conducted as a “full contact” activity.  These restrictions tend to give LudoSport matches a very distinct visual aesthetic which audiences seem to enjoy.  Still, replicating debates that have gone on in the traditional martial arts for literally centuries, many more traditional martial arts teachers doubt the wisdom of training people to avoid vital targets and always pull their punches.  This discourse seems to be one of many reasons that LudoSport insists on advertising itself as a “sport” rather than as a “martial art.”


A selection of Saber Legion competitors with their highly individualized armor. Source: SB Nation


On the other side of the spectrum one has groups like the Saber Legion, who create complete (and highly personalized) sets of safety gear which might include everything from motorcycle armor to steel gorgets.  Beyond its rugged utility, many the top competitors seek to make an esthetic statement through their selection of armor.  It serves to frame and give social meaning to the often vigorous exchanges of blows that characterize many of these matches which an outside observer might otherwise have difficulty interpreting.  Again, the greater range of permissible techniques, and adoption of lots of safety gear, makes a LudoSport match appear very different from a Saber Legion event.

Yet one’s choice of safety gear has important implications that stretch far beyond the technical questions of how a lightsaber tournament is organized.  Online debates seem to suggest that these choices are conscious strategies by which various groups seek to organize (and monopolize) the emergence of a new martial space.  Having to buy a full set of Saber Legion approved gear represents a fairly notable economic barrier to entry to the sport.  Requiring such an investment may ensure that those who become fully members of the Saber Legion network will be highly committed.  Thus if one is attempting to establish a new martial art or combat sport, there might actually be good reasons to create high barriers to entry.

Such strategies are not universal.  If Germany is an interesting test case because of the regional popularity of Wing Chun, France must attract our attention as a rapidly growing Mecca of lightsaber combat.  Over the last few weeks I have been seeking to gain a better understanding of the overall situation in that country.  This is still something that I am working on and I will be the first to admit that the exact details of the situation there are not yet totally clear to me. 

Still, one cannot help but note that while the Star Wars films are popular across Western Europe, lightsaber combat seems to be a full order of magnitude more popular in France than Germany, Spain or even the UK.  That simple observation suggests a number of important questions. Yet as multiple groups have entered this space in an attempt to control and organize the development of Lightsaber Combat within the national market, the now familiar choices between “openness” and “closure” have started to arise.

LudoSport, originally based in Italy, has a strong presence in France and has recently been busy promoting their national tournaments.  These are heavily advertised on-line, and the general public, as well as other lightsaber combat students, are encouraged to attend.  But not as competitors.  One must join LudoSport and train extensively in their system to compete in their tournaments.  Doing so also gives one access to a vibrant and well supported social community.  Students frequently travel abroad and the more committed ones may even devote personal time and resources to learning Italian, the language of the lightsaber, much as a serious Western Kendo competitor might study Japanese.

The Sport Saber League, based in Paris, has its roots in France. Like LudosSport it also views itself primarily as a sporting (rather than martial arts) organization.  As such it has focused on creating a set of regional and national tournaments.  But these enthusiastically welcome all competitors, regardless of school or style.  The SSL seems to favor a middle position on the safety gear debates (placing them between the extremes of the Saber Legion on the one hand and LudoSport on the other).  This poses a relatively low barrier to entry.  

A review of their public Facebook group (LED Saber Community) suggests an ideological orientation towards promoting the Lightsaber Combat Community as a whole, rather than just one school or style.  This should not be taken to mean that the SSL doesn’t have a preferred position on all sorts of questions.  Yet they allow more closed groups, such as Ludosport, to freely advertise events which (ironically) most members of the SSL would not be able to actually participate in.  I would suggest that this is a fundamentally “open” community precisely because they have prioritized community building without an expectation of “reciprocity.”

Kung Fu clans in Singapore, Wing Chun schools in Germany, and the growing Lightsaber Combat movement in France present researchers with three distinct cases.  None of these cases share a common art, culture or national history.  And yet in each case a student’s experience of the modern martial arts is structured by similar debates as to whether the community is best served by openness or closure.  Do small and exclusive schools offer a greater sense of community?  Does the commitment that they foster lead to better training?  Or should the martial arts reflect society more generally?  Does a freer exchange of ideas and a space for testing techniques lead to the development of “better” practice?

These seem to be among the most fundamental questions which structure the practice of martial arts in the modern world.  Those who promote these systems often make calculated decisions as to what strategy to follow, and as Adam Franks notes, may move from a position of relative openness to closure for economic or cultural reasons. Even before they start their formal training, students are subtly encouraged to align themselves with one set of values or the other.

As I have noted elsewhere, it is not enough for us to ask about the role or impact of the martial arts in the modern world.  Given the great variety of groups that exist it would be foolish to simply assume that they do the same sorts of social work.  Coming to terms with the dialectic opposition between these two modes of social organization may be an important step in creating a more nuanced view of how martial communities work.  

The remainder of this essay explores three different theoretical frameworks that may help students of martial arts studies do just that.  The first of these, drawing on the work of Peter Beyer, focuses on the the performance of the martial arts as acts of social communication.  The second approach, emerging from the literature on social capital, approaches martial arts organizations as networks of individual relationships and norms.  The last theory draws on the anthropological insights of Victor Turner and his Cornell University colleague James T. Siegel.  It approaches the martial arts as fundamentally embodied and ritual way of bridging the ever widening gap between an individual’s social status and their personal self-image against the background of rapid economic change.

Finally, I should offer one last caveat before exploring these various concepts.  The terms “open” and “closed” function best as basic descriptors indicating something about the relative position of two social institutions which exist on a continuous spectrum.  I doubt that in the real world one would ever observe a martial arts school that exhibited pure openness or closure.    Even the most “open” Wing Chun school must have some sort of understanding of why their practice is different from White Crane, just as even the most accepting lightsaber tournament would restrict a competitor from taking to the floor with a standard HEMA feder.  All groups combine both open and closed characteristics.  Yet it is still important to understand what they hope to accomplish by differentiating themselves along these lines.


A LudoSport match in progress. Source: Fiveprime.


Communication and Identity


The first conceptual approach that I would like to introduce is likely to be the most familiar to readers of Kung Fu Tea.  The Epilogue of our social history of the southern Chinese martial arts (co-authored with Jon Nielson) turned to Peter Beyer’s work on the fate of organized religion in the era of globalization to better understand some paradoxes about the development and social function of Wing Chun in the post-1972 period.   Beyers theoretical framework focuses on the modes of communication that are used to construct both identity and sense of belonging in the face of rapid economic and social change.  Many social groups, including large religious traditions, have been forced to navigate these challenges throughout the course of the 20th century.

To review a complex argument very briefly, Beyer noted that religions traditionally functioned as anchors of social meaning because they held a monopoly on the definition and discussion of the “transcendent” world, or that theoretical realm that was unlike our mundane experience.  Only by being able to imagine and occupy this “outside space” could individuals gain a sense of perspective and make sense of their daily (immanent) experiences.  The rapid acceleration of economic and cultural exchanges both eroded the exclusive truth claims of a wide range of traditional institutions (whether religious in nature or not) while at the same time promoting the fortunes of social groups who instead employed highly specialized modes of technical communication, such as professional associations.  While uninterested in making philosophical arguments about the nature of life or the definition of the community, these groups were best positioned to reap immense economic and social benefits from the acceleration of global trade, remaking society in their image.  The end result of this process has been not only the increased secularization of the West, but also the growth of ever more narrow forms of professionalization within the economy.

Not everyone benefits from the construction of ever larger and more profitable global markets.  Individuals who hold scarce factors of production typically lose in the face of expanded trade (see Ronald Rogowski).  Traditional systems of insurance and modern social safety nets fray under the pressures of global capital markets.  And even those who have materially benefitted from global trade are likely to notice a pronounced loss of meaning, or “disenchantment,” within the social sphere.  Indeed, early advocates of the secularization hypothesis were wrong to guess that religion would vanish during the 20th century precisely because they didn’t fully realize that the problems produced by the expansion of economic modernity would open new social functions to “traditional” forms of social organization.

So how will such groups respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by rapid social change?  Beyer proposed that their strategies can be termed either the “first” or “second” integrative response.  In many ways the most obvious path forward is for a small group, such as a martial arts society, to attempt strengthen the social boundaries that separate it from the rest of society.  By instituting a strong identity discourse, based on social separation, it is possible to rebuild a sense of exclusivity and to reestablish communication about transcendent principals.  In this way a martial arts practice that is concerned with establishing “proper relationships” and “traditional identities” while critiquing the trends of the day provides it members with a set of tools necessary to reorient their understanding of the nature and opportunities of the modern world.  The rise of fundamentalism in all of the world’s great religious traditions, a closely related phenomenon, suggests the general popularity of such an approach.

The second integrative response focuses not on the loss of meaning per se, but the material displacement that rapid social change brings in its wake.  Advocates of this approach within the religious sphere might be liberal protestant churches that seek to promote social justice, or who seek to create programs that support refugees and other displaced peoples, themselves the victims of globalization.  Within the martial arts community we see an increased  awareness of the need to deal with issues such as life style diseases among senior citizens, self-defense training for women or minorities, or the possible uses of martial arts in anti-bullying programs in schools.  Indeed, the great debate that structured the transmission and development of the Chinese martial arts, both at home and abroad, throughout the 20th century is whether these practices were best understood as a modern fighting/physical culture system, suitable for addressing concrete social problems, or whether they instead spoke to, and reinforced, something intrinsic in the nature of the ethno-nationalist community. 

In the Epilogue of our volume we did not explicitly address the question of openness versus closure as we were exploring a slightly different set of issues.  Yet Beyer’s theory makes clear predictions in this area.  All things being equal, the need to re-establish and maintain social boundaries suggests that those groups pursuing the First Integrative Response will find a closed and inward looking posture most useful.  Groups who seek to prove the utility of the martial arts in the modern world by addressing the secondary problems caused by rapid economic change will, almost by definition, be forced to reach out to other groups in society.  They will need to adopt modes of communication that are widely accessible and reflect, rather than challenge, core social values.  


Students practice the traditional Chinese Martial Arts in Qufu, Shandong Province.


Social Capital in the Martial Arts


While pointing to the overall function of these competing modes of communication within the martial arts, Beyer’s theory does not have much to say on how either of these strategies are likely to be carried out.  That is a problem for us as in a very real sense martial arts groups are where the “rubber meets the road.”  These organizations are attractive to scholars precisely because they provide a venue in which abstract notions of identity and social values must find expression in close relationships and bodily practice.  On a technical level, how are open or closed communities actually constructed?  Why do the members of groups come to share these orientations and replicate them through their own, usually independent, actions?

“Rational choice” based theories of social capital formation (popularized in recent decades in the fields of political science and sociology) may provide us with a better set of tools for understanding why the creation of some social networks lead to tight closed groups, where as in other cases more diffuse open relationships between sectors may evolve.  Further, the work of Robert Putnam suggests that the degree of social capital formation can have a profound impact on the proper functioning political and economic institutions.  Further, the overall level of social capital is not set.  Rather, this is something that responds to environmental conditions and evolves over time.  In fact, organizations like martial arts schools may, in certain circumstances, help to promote social capital development.

Within the social scientific literature social capital is typically defined as decentralized networks of trust and reciprocity.  The basic insight that drives this literature is that trust is not something that human beings are typically born with.  Rather, it is a type of social skill that we learn (or don’t learn) through a lifetime of interactions with our fellow human beings.  In a system lacking social capital people might only cooperate with one another through mechanisms such as legally binding contracts and enforced reciprocity.  But these sorts of mechanism are expensive and they tend to limit both the speed and efficiency with which our social institutions can work.

When people are forced to interact with each other repeatedly in small group settings, characterized by face to face interactions (e.g., your typical martial arts school or training hall), it becomes possible for them to build long lasting, secure, relationships such that they are willing to trust and cooperate with one another as a general principal.  I might help my kung fu brother move his new dining table into the house simply because he is my kung fu brother, and that is “what we do.”  Likewise he is willing to accept my help and isn’t suspicious that I am secretly casing his house for burglary because “that is not what we do.”  In short, the value of these relationships comes to find expression in powerful norms of behavior focusing on trust and mutual engagement.  Theorists term this sort of norm building within one’s immediate community “bonding capital.”

Yet once this skill has been learned, it can quickly be applied to all sorts of other situations.  For instance, in China during the 1920s and 1930s martial arts schools were forever sending representatives to larger community committees designed to advance some sort of civic cause, whether it was the celebration of a yearly festival, or providing famine relief for a neighboring province.  This type of broadly based cooperation led to the creation of “bridging capital” which could be applied to members of other groups.  Indeed, the emergence of a healthy, self-regulating, civil society was a byproduct of the rapid creation of social capital that happened in the 1920s and 1930s.  You can actually watch that process unfold as you follow the creation of an ever more articulate and self-aware “national martial arts sector” during the period.

Yet the creation of positive bridging capital is far from inevitable.  If individuals have instead developed a generalized distrust of people outside of the social group (and this seems to have been a common byproduct of Southern China’s strong clan system), then one might not ever move beyond the creation of bonding capital.  An excess of bonding capital might even entrap individuals within clan and corporate networks, and inhibit the creation of a sense of class or national solidarity.  Thus there may be a “dark side” to the social capital formation process.

Alternatively, even if the creation of bridging capital is possible, leaders might attempt to inhibit it.  As Iannaccone noted in his classic 1994 essay, “Why Strict Churches are Strong,” the problem with being a member of many overlapping groups within society is that you may be tempted to invest some of your resources in all of them.  But to be really succeed either a religion or a martial arts group needs to encourage individuals to concentrate the investment of both their time and capital within one primary community.  Encouraging a high degree of bonding capital suggests that such groups are better able to monopolize the attention of their members.  Further, imposing high barriers to entry, such as the requirement to buy expensive training gear, or to learn a highly specialized fencing system, ensures that only individuals with the resources to strengthen the community will be able to find a place within it.  

Similar effects can be achieved by increasing the level of social control that the group exercises over the individual.  This might come in the form of specialized means of address, uniforms, restrictive codes of behavior and a strict schedule.  Not only does a high degree of social control give the school the influence it needs to accomplish its goals, but it also makes these individuals less attractive to other social groups, reinforcing the boundary between “us and them.”  However, if you wish to pursue a more technical or cooperative goal (improving health outcomes for senior citizens, promoting an awareness of the Chinese martial arts, instituting regional after school programs), then leaders will have an equally strong incentive to engage with other groups and encourage their members to build up a “war chest” of bridging capital, that the school can call upon when the proper project arises.



A typical market place demonstration featuring socially marginal martial artists.



Reconciling the Social and Individual Experience of the Self


A third approach to these problems can be found in the combined works of James T. Siegel (see especially his Introduction to The Rope of God, Michigan UP ,1969) and Victor Turner (“Liminal to Liminoid, In Play, Flow and Ritual”, Rice University Studies 60 1974).  The theories of both anthropologists offer interesting insights into the ways that individuals might respond to rapid social change, particularly within the context of embodied play or quasi-ritual endeavors.  Students of martial arts studies who focus on embodied practice might find their approach to be the most useful.

In many respects Victor Turner’s insights about the nature of rites of passage within tribal societies mirror our previous discussion of Peter Beyer’s exploration of the role of religion (and its monopoly of the transcendent) in the pre-modern West.   Turner noted that during the middle, or “liminal” phase of a classic “rite of passage,” the individuals in his fieldwork were typically stripped of any social rank and even their identity.  Before an individual could transition from being a “child” to “adult,” they first had to be relieved of the identity of a child.  Before a single person could transition to married life they had to be stripped of the trappings of bachelorhood.  Indeed, in these moments of “betwixt and between” none of society’s mundane labels really captured an individual’s status.  It was a moment of radical freedom.  Sometimes they were treated as if they were dead (as in fact their old identity had died).  Being ritually put in a “transcendent” state (and sometimes kept there for an extended period of time) individuals could see the totality of their community from an entirely different perspective.  This often proved to be a profoundly transformative event.

Neither Siegel or Turner believed that it was possible for to fully experience an actual “rite of passage” in modern, socially complex, societies for reasons that I have already explored in other essays.  To simplify, the problem is individual agency.  In a small primary (often tribal) community an individual had no real say as to whether or when they underwent a rite of passage.  While their status was transformed by the ritual, it was the local community that actually demanded, scheduled and staged the rite.  In contrast, initiation rituals in the West are all, at the end of the day, voluntary activities undertaken because someone has decided to change their own social status.  Modern industrial society doesn’t really care if you decide to join the local Elks Lodge, get married or become a Catholic.  These are fundamentally individual decisions, driven by the logic of personal psychology or market consumption, that (while they may alter one’s status) do not transform the community.  So while we see all sorts of things that outwardly resemble liminal rites of passage in the modern world, its not at all clear that they follow the same logic.

So what logic are they playing out?  Given the propensity of martial arts groups to create ever more elaborate rituals (e.g., belt tests, New Year Banquets, etc…), this is a critical question for students of martial arts studies. 

When turning their attention to the emergence of the modern world, both Siegel and Turner sought to address the growing disjoint between an individual’s socially imposed status and their more personal internal experience of the self.   In the Rope of God, an ethnographic history of the Acehnese people of Sumatra, Siegel explored the ways in which instability in global coffee markets first undercut the status of local men vis a vis their families in the 1930s, and ultimately led them to support a variety of Islamic reform movements which, while not new to the area, had never managed to achieve traction in the past.

Rather than seeing economic markets as simply a source of instability, Turner (focusing more on the Western experience) noted the potential of consumption based modes of creative play to be adopted as increasingly personalized and heterodox means of identity creation.  Both scholars noted that through the creation of new voluntary movements, whether religious or consumer based, it was possible for individuals to recapture the perspective of transcendence that had marked the middle stage of rites of passage in traditional settings.  It was this ability to see society from an “outside” perspective which fueled both modern moral reform movements and heterodox modes of aesthetic expression. 

Ultimately efforts directed through social structures concerned with the question of proper values and behaviors (religious, political or community based institutions) tended to more closely mirror the traditional liminal pattern of identity formation, albeit in an updated and modernized guised that privileged the resolution of individual psychological stress.  This was the focus Siegel’s study.  

Tuner’s 1974 paper noted that such a pathway was not the only way forward.  When the search for individual fulfillment advanced through more playful expressions of art and commercial appropriation (such as the full-on adoption of the Star Wars mythos by a group of practicing martial artists), ever more personalized, or “liminoid” communities would result.  Some of these would even be capable of generating blistering social critiques which would have run contrary to the fundamental purpose of the older system of rites of passage.

While Siegel ultimately concluded that a recourse to such measures was unlikely to permanently resolve the disjoint between an individual’s self-understanind and their social valuation, it seems likely that the creative performance of identity outlined above has important implications for understanding of the adoption of openness or closure in the martial arts.  Yet in this case things do not line up precisely with the expeditions of the previous theories. Reform and revitalization movements are theoretically universal in their scope, being open to any member of the community.  And yet their instance that good social outcomes can be created only through the process of individual behavioral purification suggests that the actual costs of entry into such communities might be substantial.  

Liminoid vision of the self demand an ability to engage directly with market-based modes of consumption.  To reimagine yourself as a Shaolin monk one must first be able to afford kung fu lessons, take time off from work and eventually a plane ticket to China.  Yet what a Shaolin Monk, Kung Fu hero or Jedi Knight does in the modern world is left mostly to individuals to work out on their own, and in the companionship of likeminded travelers.  Creative visions are free to proliferate in an open ended and constantly evolving way that makes the very notion of closure difficult to define 


“The Professor’s” students. Source:





It is not enough to speculate about the survival or social function of the martial arts in the modern world.  The seemingly eternal debate as to whether the martial arts are best expressed as free systems of exchange, or closed communities dedicated to the preservation of tradition, may help us to add considerable nuance to these conversations.  Why do some martial artists choose one vision of the ideal community versus the other?  What do they expect to gain, and how do they make this vision a reality?

This essay has explored three possible approaches to these questions, though there are many others.  The first focused on competing modes of communication and drew on Peter Beyer’s work on the fate of traditional systems of social organization after the advent of globalization.  It noted that closed systems are often adopted as a means to doing “identity work,” while more open modes of organization are better at addressing the concrete secondary problem arising from rapid economic development.

The second model, derived from the social capital literature, noted that reformers might also choose to create relatively closed groups for very practical reasons that didn’t necessarily touch on the question of identity.  Closure leads almost inevitably to a greater degree of dedication on the part of the membership.  This, combined with elevated levels of social control, not only increases the the group’s ability to accomplish its goals, but may make it more attractive to high quality recruits.  Open structures, in contrast, tend to focus instead on the creation of bridging (rather than bonding) capital.  Such institutions are most likely to be of value if a vibrant civil society already exists, or if one seeks to promote societal goals (such as Jingwu’s efforts to save the Chinese nation through martial arts), which require the cooperation of many groups.

Lastly, the anthropologists Siegel and Turner noted that ritual and creative physical practice may continue to have a place in the modern world.  The creation of reform movements and spaces dedicated to creative play enable people to recapture a sense of transcendent social perspective and close the gap (at least for a little while) between their social status on the one hand and their personal experience of the self on the other.  When these impulses are expressed through large social groups, or groups that seek to reform social values, relatively exclusive or closed movements may result.  In contrast, artistic movements and market mechanisms can also empower individuals to envision very different systems of values and goals that are open-ended, and at times idiosyncratic, enough to appear to be chaotic.  Collectively these concepts may help us to better understand why so many eras of martial arts history seem to be marked by the reemergence of the same debates and questions.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”